Craig: Fans, players love fourth-down gambles

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2012 - 12:26 PM

 Fans and players love fourth-down gambles, but games often hinge on the outcome.

From the fans inside the stadium to the viewers at home to the players in the huddle, fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line is the easiest of all NFL calls.

"We all want to go for it," Vikings left guard Charlie Johnson said. "That's just our competitive nature."

But for 32 head coaches whose livelihoods depend on making correct decisions at precisely the right time amid utter chaos, going for it on fourth down is a gut-churning experience with an abundance of variables to weigh in a matter of 40 seconds between plays. For Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, the deciding factor in his key decision on the opening drive of Sunday's 24-13 upset of San Francisco can be traced back to the simple but effective message he formulated and packaged for his players in a team meeting six days earlier.

"I had talked to them all week that we weren't going to back down," Frazier said. "So I didn't want them to think that we didn't have confidence that we could score from 1 yard out that early in the game."

The Vikings scored, capping a 16-play drive against one of the best defenses in football.

"No better feeling in football than going for it and getting it," Johnson said. "Especially against the 49ers."

Frazier's fourth-down decision was a highlight of an aggressive three hours of leadership that helped change the perception that the Vikings have no choice but to wait until 2013 to be competitive in the NFC North. They did, after all, beat up the team that beat up the Packers and Lions.

"You can't play this game being timid," said receiver Percy Harvin, perhaps the least timid player in the league. "I know aggressive is the only way I play and the only way the coaches around here teach it."

Eleven teams are perfect on all fourth-down situations through three games. Six are 1-for-1, while the Vikings, Buccaneers, Giants, Chiefs and Colts are 2-for-2.

The Lions, who play host to the Vikings on Sunday, are 1-for-2 after Sunday's game against Tennessee ended with them being stopped on fourth-and-1 from the Titans' 7-yard line while trailing by a field goal in overtime. Coach Jim Schwartz said the Lions were trying to draw the Titans offsides when the ball was inadvertently snapped. Talk about miscommunication.

"That fourth-and-1 stop is one of the best feelings in football," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. "To me, the advantage is with the defense. If we stop them on fourth down, it's a big momentum shift in the game. If they get a first down, it's usually more of a drive-changer for them, not a whole game-changer."

Since the start of the 2009 season, the Vikings rank 12th in converting fourth-down situations. They've converted 51 percent (25 of 49). The Bengals (30 of 48) and Browns (25 of 40) rank first at 62.5 percent.

The Broncos (17 of 51) rank last at 33.3 percent. The Lions (26 of 58) are 21st at 44.8 percent, while the Packers (13 of 32) are 28th at 40.6 percent and the Bears (13 of 36) are 31st at 36.1 percent.

The Patriots, who are the most unconventional fourth-down decision-makers under coach Bill Belichick, are 10th at 53.2 percent (25 of 47).

"Yeah, I was there in 2009 when Belichick went for it," said Johnson, who was with the Colts when Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 28-yard line with 2:08 left and leading by six.

Convinced his defense couldn't stop Peyton Manning from anywhere on the field, Belichick felt his best option was to get the first down. The Colts defense held and Manning drove the short distance for a one-point victory.

"I've never been on a team where I didn't think we should go for it on fourth down," Johnson said. "But if I had been on the Patriots that night, I think I would have been like, 'I'm not so sure about this one, coach.'

"But other than that one time I can think of, I'd always be in favor of going for it. What coach Frazier did on Sunday had a great impact on the game. Just having that confirmation from the head coach that you can go for it makes you feel really good when you go out and take it."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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    Wednesday September 26, 2012

    MARK CRAIG'S POWER RANKINGS1. Texans (3-0)2. Falcons (3-0)3. Cardinals (3-0)4. Chargers (2-1)5. Seahawks (2-1)6. Cowboys (2-1)7. Giants (2-1)8. Eagles (2-1)9. Ravens (2-1)10. Bengals (2-1)11. Vikings (2-1)12. 49ers (2-1)13. Jets (2-1)14. Packers (1-2)15. Broncos (1-2)16. Bears (2-1)17....

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